Pass FCAT, collect $100?

The idea of paying students to learn may be distasteful, but it works.

Published May 28, 2007

To prod students into getting smarter, faster, Florida has tried just about everything: grading their schools. Shrinking their classes. Even tying teacher bonuses to how well students do on standardized tests.

Maybe it's time for something more direct: paying students.

How about $50 for passing the FCAT? How about $100?

How about $1, 000?

Many parents reward good grades with cold, hard cash. And at least one school district has tried it with positive results.

Three years ago, the 2, 000-student school district of Coshocton, Ohio, began offering elementary school students up to $100 to pass that state's version of the FCAT.

Math scores shot up immediately.

"Kids are supposed to come to school because they love to learn, " Coshocton superintendent Wade Lucas said. "Our response is, 'In the perfect world, they are.' It's not that way in Coshocton."

Could Florida be next? Many education advocates hope not. And chances are slim: The idea of paying students only floats around on the fringe of policy debates. And if it ever enters real-world airspace, it's shot down with the same argument: Tie money to student learning and you'll snuff out the joy of it.

But the idea still makes a blip now and then, in part because it hasn't been tried much, because it looks more cost-effective than other education reforms and because parents don't dismiss the idea as quickly as teachers do.

In Florida, at least one key lawmaker likes the concept and thinks it'll be ripe for a look next session.

"Sometimes the obvious eludes us, " said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who chairs the Education Appropriations Committee and says his wife gives the grandkids money for glowing report cards. Performance pay for students "is not a bad concept."

"I think we ought to figure out what we can do and how much it costs, " he said.

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Coshocton is a Rust Belt town in the Appalachian foothills.

Its industrial base has all but vanished, leaving behind a student population where one in four is disabled and half are on free or reduced-price lunch. A few years ago, in response to anemic test scores, Ohio pinned its most dire label on Coshocton: academic "emergency."

In stepped a local businessman named Robert Simpson. He donated $100, 000 to start a student incentive program and told school officials: If it works, I'll fund it forever.

The district decided to parcel out the money in $20, 000 annual allotments. For starters, it focused on grades 3 through 6. Students can earn up to $20 for each of five standardized tests they take. Instead of cash, they earn "Coshocton bucks, " faux money with a dollar-for-dollar exchange rate that's widely accepted by local merchants.

At first, teachers were skeptical. Lucas put together an advisory committee, gave parents, teachers and businesspeople seats at the table, and spent seven months answering questions. In the end, he got a green light.

Now, every year, eight of 16 classes in the four targeted grades are picked at random during the district's academic pep rally. As students cheer, the superintendent reaches into a lottery-style numbers machine.

"We start pulling out the ping-pong balls, the place goes crazy, " Lucas said.

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In Florida, there have been pizza parties for honor roll kids and McDonald's gift certificates for perfect attendance. And when the FCAT came along and stakes got higher, the rewards got better: At a Sarasota high school, administrators gave out 10 iPods to students who consistently showed up for FCAT prep sessions. At Sheehy Elementary in Tampa, students with top FCAT scores got to have lunch with the principal hoorah? after being chauffeured to a restaurant by limo.

But for all that, school-sanctioned rewards still remain scattershot, rinky-dink and limited to a few.

In Coshocton, more than 90 percent of students earn money, with the average payout last year coming to $74.

At that rate, a version in Florida - where 1.6-million students take the FCAT - would cost about $100-million.

By some comparisons, that's not a lot of money. The Legislature set aside $148-million this year for a new teacher bonus plan. And this summer, teachers will get most of the $150-million or so doled out to high-performing schools. Teachers have widely bashed both programs. And there's been no research to gauge if either is working.

If that money were instead directed to students taking FCATs, average payouts would approach $200. Target it more narrowly - say, to the 700, 000 students who flunked the FCAT in reading this year - and average payouts would top $400.

It would not be difficult to design a plan, using existing money, where many students earn $1, 000 bonuses.

Would that be enough?

A hundred dollars wouldn't move Molly Taylor, 15, who just finished her freshman year at Boca Ciega High in Gulfport.

"I get that for babysitting, " she said.

Three hundred? Nope.

Five hundred? Molly cracks a smile. "That's straight, " she said. For that, "students would step their game up."

It wouldn't take as much to motivate Alexander Dye, 8, who's headed into third grade at Rawlins Elementary in Pinellas Park. He already gets $100 from Mom every report card, so he shrugged at $50. But another $100?

"That would help me a lot, " he said.

Mom perked up, too.

"If you go to work, you get money, " said Cristina Dye, a stay-at-home mother whose husband is a truck driver. "...Why not teach them something responsible?"

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Does it work?

In Coshocton, students who were eligible for bonuses out-performed their peers in math the first year, gaining about a year's more knowledge. The next year, their scores remained a grade level higher.

The results are promising, said Eric Bettinger, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University, who is monitoring the results. "The thing that's interesting about the Coshocton experiment is that instead of putting a stick out there, we've put a carrot - and the students have responded."

In March, a group of educators and business executives called the National Math and Science Initiative Inc. announced a national plan to offer high school students $250 for each Advanced Placement exam they pass. In Dallas, where the idea started, the number of passing AP scores in participating schools increased tenfold in a decade.

"The idea is to sweeten the pot, if you will, for students who may be reluctant to engage in more rigorous course work, " especially minority students, said John Winn, the former Florida education commissioner who is now working on the project. "We put it in the same context as scholarships. Nobody complains about giving kids full scholarships for achievement."

The way Winn sees it, Florida already has the biggest student incentive program in the country: the Bright Futures Scholarship. The wildly popular program covers $400-million worth of tuition each year for college students who maintained a B average in high school and got at least so-so SAT scores. Since it began in 1997, Florida's graduation rate has gone up more than 10 percentage points.

A scholarship might be too abstract for an elementary student, said Lucas, the superintendent. "I've never talked to a third-grader who says they're going to Ohio State when they graduate."

But even a third-grader knows what $100 can buy.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com.